Shakespeare and Epic

Monday, May 12, 2014 - 2:15pm
Colin Burrow (All Souls, Oxford)
66 St Giles', Oxford

What did the word ‘epic’ mean to Shakespeare? What did he think he knew about it and how did he dramatize what he thought he knew about it? This talk will begin by exploring the use of the word ‘epic’ in the later sixteenth century. It will then argue that Shakespeare’s conception of literary genre was at root rhetorical and was closely linked to registers of style. As a result ‘epic’ is for him as much a way of speaking as what we would think of a genre. This means that people who speak in an ‘epic’ manner in Shakespeare’s works are displaying as much a personal character as a genre, and their language can be judged by others on the stage and off it. This, I will argue, is why an ‘epic’ style in Shakespeare can be used to evoke both high passion and high comedy. Juicy passages from Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida, as well as some drier fare from Cicero and Melanchthon, will ornament and dignify the argument.